50 Greatest Rappers of All Time

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The 50 Greatest MCs of All Time

Rapper on stage
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Who's the greatest MC of all time? What does that title really mean? What does it take to become the greatest rapper ever? Times change. Skills fade. New greats emerge; old ones decline. How do you crown one MC the best when there are so many great emcees still working? I don't know. What I do know is that the following 50 emcees have done everything it takes to make a play for the throne.

To keep this as fair and thorough as possible I've established some ground rules. Please read the rules before you peruse the list.

To be eligible, artists must:

  • be active for a minimum of 10 years
  • have released a minimum of 2 albums

Artists were evaluated in the following categories:

  • originality
  • longevity
  • lyrics
  • cultural impact
  • flavor
  • battle skills
  • body of work
  • poetic value
  • substance
  • versatility
  • vocal presence
  • live performance
  • flow
  • delivery
  • influence
  • and more

Here are the 50 greatest rappers of all time.

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Gift of Gab

Gift of Gab
Jean Baptiste Lacroix/WireImage

Gift of Gab's flow is swift as ice. His poetics are audio tattoos. Though Gift and Blackalicious comrade Chief Xcel never strayed far enough from their recipe to line up their walls with plaques, their body of work won the hearts of fans and critics from coast to coast.
Essential: Nia

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Paul Natkin/WireImage

It's mostly the voice. You knew it when you heard it. It was unmistakable. As the voice of Gang Starr (DJ Premier helmed the duo's production department), Guru was vastly instrumental in creating one of the greatest hip-hop duos of all time. Extra credit goes to Baldhead Slick for being one of the premier jazz-rappers. And who could ever forget that velvet voice?
Essential: Daily Operation

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Matthew Eisman/Getty Images

Before the G-Unit tattoos, before the Jay Z battle, before the Havoc feud, Prodigy was a pivotal player in east coast rap. P and his partner in rhyme Hav brought dun talk to Queensbridge. Outside the Mobb, Prodigy went on to establish himself as a solo force. He teamed up with producer Alchemist on 2007's Return of the Mac and 2013's Albert Einstein

Essential: The Infamous (w/ Mobb Deep)

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Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

At a time when gangsta rap was the order of the day, Posdnous and his De La cohorts crashed the party with a smile and some daisies.

Essential: De La Soul Is Dead

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Shareif Ziyadat/FilmMagic

A street-wise lyricist, Jadakiss has maintained a startling level of consistency since the days of L-O-X. Aside from his raspy flow and his ability to dismantle anyone on a track, Jada is also famous for threatening to throw a refrigerator at Diddy over a publishing dispute.

Essential: Kiss of Death

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Bun B

Bun B
Ray Tamarra/Getty Images

Bun B emits charm and charisma on wax and in person. Bun's technique, leadership and cultural impact earned him the respect of peers and fans alike. The 5 mic winning  showed he can still hang with the best of 'em.
Essential: Ridin' Dirty (w/ UGK)

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Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

Rappers are obsessed with royalty. Many have declared themselves king at some point in their career, but few have taken the proclamation as seriously as T.I. The Kang gained credibility for his claim via the cosign of fellow kings like Scarface and Bun B, but he still had to make good on the title. And so he did, dropping hit after hit, juking past rivals, and keeping the street happy simultaneously. T.I.'s best songs are often the ones where the trap meets the charts. Thanks to this foolproof recipe, T.I. has enjoyed multiple platinum successes, including the million-selling King and double platinum Paper Trail
Essential: Trap Muzik

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Beanie Sigel

Beanie Sigel
Gregg DeGuire/WireImage

With a distinctive delivery and a tested battle pedigree, Beans followed in the long line of Philly-bred greats. He was one of Roc-a-Fella's brightest alongside Jay Z and Kanye West. There must be a special formula in the waters of Philadelphia.
Essential: The Truth

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Scott Gries / Getty Images

DMX is made a name for himself with the ever peculiar mix of spirituality and passion. 1998 was a highlight in his career, as the Yonkers MC released two albums in one year. Both flew straight to numero uno.
Essential: It's Dark & Hell Is Hot

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Snoop Dogg

Snoop Dogg
Vivien Killilea / Getty Images

Not too many rappers have been able to create mainstream hits while still keeping it "G". Apart from wielding the slickest of slick flows, Snoop has also supplied some of the most captivating hooks hip-hop has ever witnessed. 
Essential: Doggystyle

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Queen Latifah

Queen Latifah
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Queen Latifah was not the first female rapper. But she was definitely the first to become a hip-hop star. Her third album, Black Reign, became the first by a female MC to be certified gold. Latifah's commercial success kicked down doors for future stars like Da Brat, Lauryn Hill and Nicki Minaj.
Essential: All Hail the Queen

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Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar
Chris Weeks/Getty Images for Reebok

Kendrick Lamar emerged as arguably the best rapper of the 2010s, following the release of two critically acclaimed albums, good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp a Butterfly. (His pre-Aftermath/Interscope project, Section .80, wasn't too shabby, either.) Lamar brought a refreshing sense of leadership and innovation to the game. He used his platform to challenge his peers, highlight societal ills and, ultimately, pine for a hopeful resolve. You can't front on that, unless you're Bill O'Reilly.

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Steve Eichner/Getty Images

As Tribe's lead MC, Q-Tip helped pioneer jazz rap. Tip promoted Afrocentric ideals and social discourse without ever raising his voice. That takes skill, yo.
Essential: Midnight Marauders

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Kanye West

Kanye West
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

Kanye West walks around with a Texas-sized boulder on his shoulder, but he certainly has the skills to back up the drama. West is arguably the best producer on the mic; his technique has evolved over the years; his albums are topically diverse; and his influence is ubiquitous. 

Essential: Late Registration

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Busta Rhymes

Busta Rhymes
Des Willie/Redferns

One of the founding principles of emceeing is the ability to move the crowd. And who can say they've never been compelled to move to the beat by Busta's favorite grunt: "Whoo-HA!" Extra points for being the most energetic live performer in hip-hop history.

Essential: Extinction Level Event (Final World Front)

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Lupe Fiasco

Lupe Fiasco
Lupe Fiasco. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

When your first hit is about skateboarding and you ka kun ka kun your way to the top of the game while eating Kanye West on his own track, your future certainly looks bright as all seven skies. Sure, Emperor Lu has toyed with career suicide but he still lives to influence a generation of lyricists like J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar.
EssentialFood & Liquor

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Raekwon - Unexpected Victory
Raekwon - Unexpected Victory. © Ice H20

Although the "chef" in Raekwon the Chef has more to do with white meat than soul food, Rae helped create the recipe for mafioso rap in the 90s. Apart from his obvious influence on many of today's emcees, this clansman is also the author of one of the best hip-hop albums of all time, Only Built for Cuban Linx.
Essential: Only Built 4 Cuban Linx

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Kool Moe Dee

With his deadly combination of wit and grit, Kool Moe Dee helped write the blueprint for what would eventually become known as battle rap.

Essential: How Ya Like Me Now

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Military vet Canibus is known for his esoteric psych-rap transcendence. When he's not battling an unidentified foe, he's pondering UFO conspiracy theories and the nature of chicken parmesan. Ultimately, anyone who can battle LL Cool J and Eminem in the same lifetime and still stand is a man of valor.
Essential: Mic Club - The Curriculum

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Royce da 5'9"

Anyone whoe's ever driven a standard one-gear car understands the mind of Royce da 5'9". Nickel Nine only knows one way to steer the mic and that's to subdue every beat he comes in contact with. A battle vet, Royce isn't afraid of competition. In fact, he thrives in it -- he's teamed up with Eminem as Bad Meets Evil and plies his trade as one-fourth of the supergroup Slaughterhouse, alongside Joe Budden, Crooked I and Joell Ortiz. 
Essential: Death Is Certain

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Killer Mike

Henry Adaso

Killer Mike is the new school Ice Cube: the voice of a minister, the attitude of a Panther, and the delivery of a cannonball. Mike's versatility is one of his best weapons. He rocks party jams and militant anthems with the same gusto.

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Talib Kweli

Talib Kweli © Blacksmith/Warner.

Talib Kweli was drawn to writing at an early age, having grown up in a home with both parents as college professors. Kweli extends those early lessons to his art, using hip-hop as a platform to enlighten and empower his community.
Essential: Quality

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Ghostface Killah

Ghostface is by far one of the most imaginative storytellers of our time. He's also the most consistent album maker in hip-hop with a deep and rich catalog of great albums.

Essential: Supreme Clientele

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AZ, who debuted on Nas' 1994 hit song "Life's a B***h," is arguably the most underrated rapper ever. Too tough to sell out, his "intelligent thug" persona sets him aside from his peers.

Essential: Doe or Die

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MC Lyte

Brooklyn's own MC Lyte is the complete package. She made her entrance by helping Sinnead O'Connor to a dance hit, throwing flames at a cheating boyfriend, and railing against copycat rappers, all at the same damn time.
Essential: Lyte As a Rock

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Big Pun

Despite his large frame, Big Pun's fun, fast and feisty rhymes kept him light years ahead of his peers. He was also the first solo Latino rapper to go platinum. How's that for cultural impact?
Essential: Capital Punishment

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LL Cool J

(Photo © Kevin Winter/Getty)

LL's longevity has never been disputed--he hasn't been able to "Live Without His Radio" since 1985--and, unlike other 80s icons, Cool J has managed to reinvent his style over the years to reflect the current hip-hop landscape.

Essential: Mama Said Knock You Out

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Big L

Big L

Gunned down in his prime at 24 on February 15, 1999, the rest of Big L's talent followed him to the grave. But he left behind enough material to make a case as one of the most talented poets in hip-hop history.

Essential: The Big Picture

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Masta Ace

Surrounded by Juice Crew vets like Marley Marl, MC Shan, Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Roxanne Shante, and Craig G, Masta Ace was an unsung talent early on. Still, his wit, wordplay and consistency eventually earned him a spot among the greats.
Essential: Disposable Arts

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Pharoahe Monch

Pharoahe Monch.

 Through his panoramic vision and hyper-realistic narratives, Pharoahe Monch solidified a reputation as one of hip-hop's eminent lyricists.
Essential: Internal Affairs

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Redman doesn't get the credit he deserves, but he's inspired a handful of other greats on this list, including Eminem. Sometimes satirical, sometimes silly, Redman is one of the liveliest storytellers of his era.

Essential: Muddy Waters

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An ingenuous street poet, a master storyteller and a battle-worn warrior, Common has kept Chi-town hip-hop's flag flying high for two decades straight.

Essential: Resurrection

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Lauryn Hill

Bernd Muller/Redferns/Getty

After years as a member of the Fugees, Lauryn Hill finally broke out as a solo star with 1998’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Some of the album’s most unforgettable tunes are poignant tributes to motherhood, relationships and culture. Lauryn is one of the greatest MCs of all time--male or female.

Essential: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

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GZA / Genius

Armed with sharp metaphors and a smooth flow, Shaolin swordsman GZA is one of the most cerebral MCs in the Wu family.

Essential: Liquid Swords

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Black Thought

Black Thought is a surgeon of emceeing, reaching only for the most incisive effect each line and verse, each metaphor and punchline, can convey, and applying his skill accordingly. If you listen closely you might hear him feeling around his tool box for just the right flow, the right vocal inflection, the right rhyme sequence. He always seems to find it.

Essential: Illadelph Halflife

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Chuck D

Lyrical with a militant message and a take-no-prisoners persona, Chuck D remains a hugely influential figure in game today.

Essential: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Bac

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Mos Def

(Photo © Slaven Vlasic / Getty)

Before he caught the acting bug, Mos Def made an indelible impression on hip-hop with lyrics so clean they made your parents boogey.

Essential: Black on Both Sides

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Andre 3000

(Photo © Jon Furniss / Getty)

He raps, sings, acts and even dabbles in guitar. Andre 3000 is hip-hop's renaissance man. Although he's released 0 solo albums, Dre has developed a reputation for stealing the show with nearly every guest appearance.

Essential: Aquemini

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The Teacha transformed the violent brusque of street life into a story of uplift and self-awareness, starting with BDP's incendiary debut, Criminal Minded.

Essential: By All Means Necessary (w/ Boogie Down Productions)

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Slick Rick

Despite myriad run-ins with the INS and jail stints, Ricky Walters managed to hold down the storytelling department like no other.

Essential: The Great Adventures of Slick Rick

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Ice Cube

Politically salient with an in-your-face voice, Ice Cube developed a cult-like following by favoring substance over style. He's also the only man who went to war with NWA and came out on top.

Essential: Death Certificate

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Big Daddy Kane

(Photo © Gabe Ginsberg/Getty)

Big Daddy Kane is the original king of swagger. Charismatic and confident on the mic, Kane entertained the world with his peculiar flair and stylish wardrobe. Rappers like Jay Z, Biggie, and Snoop would later adopt his player persona.

Essential: Long Live the Kane

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Kool G. Rap

The next time your favorite emcee commits a double-homicide on wax, blame it on Kool G Rap. Why? He's the grandfather of hardcore hip-hop. Some of the grittiest street tales in rap grew out of G Rap's rhyme book.

Essential: wanted: Dead or Alive (w/ DJ Polo)

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Christopher Polk/Getty Images

Eminem is a once-in-a-generation talent. His dystopic rhymes, complex flow, experimental wordplay, and meticulous phrasing make him one of the best MCs of all time.

Essential: The Marshall Mathers LP

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Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Only a handful MCs have managed to sustain their alignment with the streets regardless of mainstream plaudits. Scarface is at the top of that list. His street tales and poetic raps are constant reminders that Brad Jordan is the voice of the hood.

Essential: The Diary

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Tupac Shakur
Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Tupac Shakur is the most influential hip-hop artist of all time. Even in death, 2Pac remains a transcendental rap figure. Afeni's baby is often imitated but never duplicated.

Essential: Me Against the World

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Jay Z

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Jay Z changed the game on and off wax. Musically, he inspired a host of young MCs eager to learn how to hustle their flow. Business-wise, he inspired a grip of hustler-turned-trappers. Peep his flawless flow and double entendres. That marketing plan was him.

Essential: Reasonable Doubt

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The Notorious B.I.G.

Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The Notorious B.I.G. was the complete MC. He had the stories, the hits, the unforgettable guest rhymes the lyrics and a great body of work to leave a lasting mark. Biggie had enough pizzazz to sway audiences young and old. His effortless wit and unparalleled flow made him one of the greatest rappers of our time.

Essential: Ready to Die

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While others bragged about their guns, Rakim celebrated his skills. Before Rakim, hip-hop was all about nursery rhymes. He changed the game by introducing multisyllabic rhymes and a slew of new slangs. A smooth, laid-back flow and positive messages are the stately hallmarks that make Rakim one half of one of rap's greatest duos and a contender for the ultimate crown in hip-hop.

Essential: Paid in Full (Eric B. & Rakim)

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J. Shearer/WireImage

Nas is an MC's MC.Nimble voice? Check. Gripping tales? Check. Concept songs? Check. Classic albums? Check. An exemplary commitment to integrity.? Check, check, check. Whether rapping about project windows or fried chicken, Nas has a way of bringing pictures to life. He’s weathered the vagaries of the music industry and maintained a dedicated fan base. All his albums have been certified gold or platinum. That's a remarkable feat for a man not known for Top 40 hits. 

Nas is the greatest MC of all time.

Essential: Illmatic